Early summer 2009, a friend and I opened up our home to strangers and began cooking brunches for them. The pair of us were under-employed and had recently heard tales of a Japanese vegan restaurant in a nearby council flat in East London. The attitude of ‘why not?’ soon became The Bruncheon Club. The restaurant cracked best breakfast lists across the capital and these days you won’t see me poach an egg for less than twelve quid.
The final year of the noughties was undeniably the year of the underground restaurant – or supper club if you get your trends from the other side of the Atlantic. Along with my own, Tony Hornecker’s ‘Pale Blue Door’ was one of the initial swell for those looking to dine-in, out. Situated in his self-converted Alice-in-Wonderland warehouse home in East London hotspot, Dalston , the set-designer picked a simple menu, got a few colourful friends and their dressing-up box along and began serving in April.
The Pale Blue Door’s infamy grew rapidly, largely due to it being very comfortable with its own eccentricities. With food and extra-culinary entertainment served up by transvestites within a home akin to a dollhouse on acid, it was dining a la Twin Peaks. Hornecker has been frank in admitting he only opened his doors as the bills were piling up and the design work burning out – he was no foodie playing restaurants – but that somehow served to make the whole affair even more laid-back than its underground peers. Thus the restaurant carved itself a Caligulan niche with bawdy evenings that liked to toy with all of the senses.
All of which made a great blueprint for a bit of bash during the season of gluttony and pantomime. At least it did according to the cognoscenti at The Architecture Foundation. The rigorously urbanite organisation – established in the early nineties to venerate contemporary space and culture – invited Hornecker to fill a blank-set and an empty kitchen at their London Bridge HQ. The upshot being the December run of festive underground eatery, ‘Christmas at No.42’.
Initially it seemed that the collaboration may have eroded a little of the underground fun, but then you don’t have to sign Health & Safety waivers upon entry to many restaurants, unlicensed or otherwise. It did at least create a not unpalatable entrée of apprehensive mystery. With liability now in our own hands my fellow diners – specially selected Architecture postgraduates among them – and I were immediately immersed into a wondrous wooden playhouse, all nooks, crannies, ladders, trinkets and tangents. Expanding across the span of the dollhouse style rooms, from the ground floor dining space through to the cosier upper-level bedroom attic, the restaurant even wound its way into the confines of the toilet. The attention span bewildering setting was crafted by Hornecker in but seven days. Leaving biblical coincidences aside, I thought that if the taste buds were in for similar stimulation then the forty pound ticket was going to be like the January sales come early.
Any remaining apprehension was soon washed away by the large G&T on arrival, especially with the Gin gnashing through the fizz. With the complimentary half-bottle of wine per person arriving on its heels, sobriety soon drifted away much like the first course of cheesy broccoli with spicy flaked almonds.
Cue the cabaret from the drag artists Russella and A Man To Pet. Heavy on innuendo and light on clothing, the entertainment certainly added to the fantasia of our surroundings.Charming and calamitous attempts at tree decoration, karaoke, cake-baking, and baby-sitting would punctuate the rest of the evening. All this fandangle could certainly be seen as an attempt to hide a shoddy course or two but there was no disguising the showstopper – the mashed potato. Quite possibly the finest mashed potato I have ever chanced upon, thanks to the probable adding of an entire Recommended Festive Allowance of dairy. The creamed spuds helped a few hunks of tender roast beef, carrots and peas slide down gracefully. The finale, an Eton-mess crumble came and went without much fanfare but the dessert did have an alibi. My guests and I were succumbing to wander-lust as we hurried to dissipate into Hornecker’s corners to check whether the other diners were real or just part of the play.
Sceptics may attack the underground restaurant scene for being a transitory media-driven occurrence, less about the food than the happening. But for the devoted it is the experience that is the thrill, a return to the roots of sharing a meal. The food here, firmly rooted in home-cooking, comfortably survives the scrutiny of the would-be naysayers whilst simultaneously providing an atmosphere living up to the billing of the believers. For me Christmas at No.42 is well-executed experiential eating; hearty home-cooking in a setting of warmth and casual intrigue. I’m just hoping that 2010 will see architecture and theatrical underground dining share a few more cosy dinner dates.
You can find more wondrous photos at BigShinyThing